"Oh dear, we don't even have a desk for you! Well, just for today, you sit up in the front with me."
In alphabetical order we all received our ice cream cones, and were licking madly. I was crunching the waffle at the bottom of the cone just moistened with green melt-off, when the letter Z' s were finally served. I noticed from my seat in the front row-- where I was placed to accommodate my near-sightedness--that there was exactly one serving of ice cream left. Miss Murphy carefully scraped out the bucket and handed the last ice cream cone to Yasha. That meant she had none. "But you have none, Miss Murphy!" I pointed out to her. I looked balefully at the melted pool of ice cream on the floor. "Ah, but I get the best part," she said, "I get to lick the spoon." Yasha was a thin, pale boy with knotted blond hair and colorless lips. He stared for a moment at his cone, and then at the class, and from his position of authority at the teacher's big desk, he vomited.
The new boy must have been nearsighted too, because Miss Murphy put his desk right next to mine. "Now you help him, because he has missed a lot of school." I could not believe how dumb Yasha was. He could neither read nor write, his hair was a mess, and he spent almost every afternoon with his head resting upon his arms like a cabbage in a laundry pile, fast asleep. "He's sleeping in school!" I stage-whispered to Miss Murphy. "You just mind your own business, Miss Noseybody!" she responded. I was stung to the core. I spent as much time in the back of the room at the pencil sharpener as I could, trying to sort it out. Yasha did everything wrong and yet Miss Murphy was constantly singling him out for special treatment. One day as I stood grinding my pencil down to nothing at the pencil sharpener, my eyes fell on the Chart of Children's Virtues. After Yasha' s name there was a long string of firm red check marks. This was a child who frequently came late to school, who wet his pants, who knew no answers. He had more red check marks than I, teacher' s pet! My head pounding with outrage, I quickly decided to take justice into my own hands. I pressed myself almost flat against the Chart of Children's Virtues, and madly, and with a kind of moral abandon, ticked off a dozen or so check marks next to my own name. I ticked them in my childish hand, and in plain graphite, but tick I felt I must. Justice would prevail.
On Easter Monday there was a spelling bee. I won with "sauce." I won an Easter toy: a tiny yellow fur chick. As I bore my prize home that day, I spotted Yasha getting into Miss Murphys car. Suddenly the toy chick turned insignificant in my hands. He was riding in her car, in her beautiful grey car the same color as her beautiful grey suit. Where on earth could they be going! I walked my usual route in an agony of unrequited love and jealous grief.
That night at supper it was announced that Miss Murphy had brought a dirty little boy into the children's shoe store, where my brother worked after school. He said she appeared to be buying him shoes, and that there was a lollipop involved. I burst into tears at the supper table, and could not be consoled.
In May Miss Murphy strode to the back of the room and untacked the Chart of Children's Virtues from the wall. Inside my head I heard drum rolls. Her plan was to choose the most virtuous child, based on the number of red check marks. She would invite the winner home with her that night for a special dinner with her and her sister Bridget.
I could hardly breathe. Of course I would be chosen---over the past month I had surreptitiously added several scores of check marks to my name. What would we eat? Would there be cake? The joy was too intense.
The drum was still rolling when she announced that Yasha was the winner. In that schoolroom full of immigrant children, I seemed to have been the only one who had aspired--who had hoped--who had prayed--who had cheated--and my disappointment was all but unendurable.
Yasha slept that night at Miss Murphy' s house, and every night for a week or so after, and then he disappeared. He just failed to come to school one day, and his empty desk sat there next to me. Its emptiness relieved me and confused me.
Sometime after second grade was over and it was summer, my mother told me that a little DP boy named Yasha was in the tuberculosis sanatorium outside of town. His father had just died and now he was an orphan. My mother said we should all pray for him.
Ten years later I brought my orange mechanical pencil to college with me. That December my mother sent me a clipping from our hometown paper. It was Miss Josephine Murphy's obituary. She had died, age sixty-one, from cancer. She was survived by her sister.
As I sat in my college dormitory room, with snow falling in a dismal fashion outside my high grey windows, reading my mail, I thought of Miss Murphy dancing us all about the second grade room. And I thought of the noon whistle, and the factories, and all the human heads bowed in sorrow and dignity over their lost homes and their fullness of hope. And for the rest of that day I felt a little displaced myself.